The 38-year-old, who has funded himself in a 13-year professional career that has seen him compete in Europe, Asia and, last year, on the Korn Ferry Tour in the US, had spent the closing weeks of 2021 playing money matches at Woburn, his home club in England. “I'm playing great,” he said, pointing to the fact he was 38 under par for his last six rounds. “I'm really interested to go out to Asia with all these good scores in the bank. I'm just going to believe and play like I have done.”
A pair of solid finishes in Singapore put Steve comfortably inside the top-30 on the Asian Tour Money List, earning him a spot in the Saudi International, an event boasting 20 of the world’s top-50 players, 10 different major winners and enough Official Golf World Ranking points to make a serious difference to a player ranked 639 at the start of the year.
It could be argued that what Steve achieved there – a T4 that earned him $217,500, a jump of 224 places in the OGWR and top spot on the 2022 Asian Tour Money List – represents one the performances of the year thus far. This is how he did it.
Steve opened with a 68 and followed it with a 67 as the wind got up. His second-round included a superb ARG performance for an Average Shot Quality of 136. At the halfway stage he was T9 on five under par. The secret? “I tried to play as if I was playing in a match at Woburn."
Shot Quality is represented as a number between 0 and 200, with 100 being the quality expected of a shot by a typical PGA Tour player and 200 representing “perfection”, such as a hole-in-one or a hole out from the fairway.
“I was interested to see how I stood up against Bubba and how I dealt with it. I was a bit nervous on the first tee but then I flushed it down the middle. After that I was absolutely fine.”
This relaxed attitude would be put to the test in the third round, playing alongside one of the tournament’s marquee names, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson. “I was kind of waiting to see how I played with Bubba,” Steve says. “He's a big player, a really good golfer and he was playing well, so I was interested to see how I stood up against him and how I dealt with it. I was a bit nervous on the first tee but then I flushed it down the middle. After that I was absolutely fine.”
Steve made birdies on 6 and 8, before his first bad decision on 9 resulted in a bogey. “Maybe I got a bit overconfident. I was trying to hook a 7-iron against the wind but I overdid it and missed the green left in the bunker. It was 10 yards from the flag but on the wrong side. And there it is: Shot Quality 71.”
On the back nine, Steve dug in before making birdie on the last for 69. “I was really surprised by the first day I played with [Bubba],” he admits. “I shot better than him and I actually thought I played better all over the golf course."
Going into the last day, Steve was T8 alongside Xander Schauffele and Watson, six shots off the lead but only one back from Dustin Johnson and two from Cameron Smith. He again found himself playing with Bubba.
Hole 1: “My caddie wanted me to hit 7-wood off the tee. I had hit driver all week so I hit driver but pulled it into the bunker. I only had 90-odd yards but there was sand behind the ball and I was worried that if I tried to pick it I might skull it. If I ended short I had the whole green to work with. I got it on the front edge and two-putted from 84 feet.”
Hole 2: “I hit a poor tee shot on 2 and put it in the water. It was my worst shot of the week. I was trying to be brave and hit it down the right half, so I'd have a wedge or 9-iron in. I took a penalty drop and then from 220-odd I hit a 5-iron to 10 feet. I was very annoyed I missed the putt. Bubba had started birdie, birdie so I thought, 'Wow, I'm already three behind him.'”
Hole 3: “I then hit a terrible shot into 3 with a 7-iron, normally one of my favourite irons – short sided, in the rough, no green to work with. I hit a really good, floaty flop shot to about six or seven feet, and holed the putt left to right. After that, I was like, 'We’ve got a par-5 coming up. Let's just steady the ship here.’”
Hole 4: “I hit a really good tee shot down 4 and then I hit my 7-wood to about 25 feet behind the flag. As soon as that happened, I was off. Hitting those two good shots in a row was what I needed. After that I just thought it's just a normal round of golf.”
Steve followed up by stiffing his approach on 6 before hitting to five feet on 7 but missing the putt. Rather than being a momentum stopper, his next shot, the tee shot on the par-3 8th, was his joint best of the week – 192 for Shot Quality.
Hole 8: “My caddie thought Bubba had hit 7. The wind kept gusting and I wanted to hit 6. It was probably one of the few holes where it was just straight into the wind so I just tried to hit it as straight as I could at the flag. I knew it was good as soon as I hit it. As we were walking up to the green, Bubba said, 'What did you hit? He was really surprised I'd hit 7 because he hit 6 to about eight feet. I hit a lot of good shots into that hole during the week.”
Hole 11: "It was 145 yards and I hit 7 iron. It was a really good shot into the wind to about five feet but I missed the putt, which I was mad about because Bubba made double. I saw the board on 11 and I was seventh. I thought if I par these next five holes, I will move up. It was just so difficult in the wind to hit it close."
Hole 17: “The pitch on 17 was was the hardest shot I had all day. It was uphill from about 25 yards, over a bunker and down a 30mph wind. I hit it to about five feet and missed the putt. They're all chances, but it was difficult putting in the wind.”
Hole 18: "The last day was the windiest and at 18, they pushed the tee up. I'd seen Bubba hit it over the bunker; it's a 340 carry. I hadn't hit that line all week, so I just chipped a drive up the left and it went 360-365 but short of the water. Then I hit 9-iron in. Maybe if I had been playing a bounce game at Woburn I'd probably just tried to hit over the trap but because I hit it up the left it gave me the opportunity to hit it on the green with a 9-iron and have a putt for eagle.”
After the round, Bubba Watson, who shot 64 to miss out by one, had some encouraging words. “He was very complimentary,” explains Steve. “He said, 'Just keep going. You’ve got plenty enough game to get to the PGA Tour.' I think he was surprised actually. I'd only ever played in two PGA Tour events before and he wasn't at either, so he had no idea who I was.
"I was very impressed by him, particularly on the last day," Steve adds. "He hit a lot of golf shots close. He should have won. Bubba is definitely someone the golfing public should go and watch if they ever get a chance. There's not many golfers that can do what he does. He shapes it 20, 30 yards and it's under control, which I've never seen before."
On the whole, I drove it pretty good. I felt like hit a lot of fairways, and when I missed, I was only in the semi. I only hit it in the desert twice all week. When you've got a 30mph crosswind and you've got hazards on that same side, it's hard to aim it in the hazard and know it's going to come back.
"I was quite surprised by how my driving stacked up. Bubba only probably hit three flat-out drivers with me in two days. We hit a lot of chipped drivers and we were side by side on almost every hole. I was surprised because obviously he’s really long. It was only when he went after it that he could give me 20-30 yards.”
“My iron play was my superpower. Even in that wind I hit a lot of shots inside six feet, which I think is a massive advantage. I've always been good with my irons, but I did hit them really good the last day. They were just going where I was pointing.”
“I was disappointed I didn't finish a few more under par because I gave myself good enough opportunities. When I walked off the course, it was a case of if only I had holed some of those six footers. I might not have won it but I could have easily got to 12 under."
"I like to know where I need to get better and that's what I look at the stats for. I look at the data in Clippd and it's nice to see I'm doing well at what I think I am, but also seeing that certain bits I might think are not that great are actually OK. I could just do short game and putting practice but I don't want to leave my irons and my driving to the side. They are my strengths [see Relative Importance, above] so I want to keep them as strong as possible. I feel when I play my best golf, that's what I'm doing really well.
“I feel like my game is trending in the right direction. I feel like I should do really well this year. I'm expecting to really kick on now that I've had a good result."